Satirical Distortion of Reality: On Jared Yates Sexton’s ‘I Am the Oil of the Engine of the World’
Sexton’s story collection is a funny yet scary, brutally honest yet hyperbolic distortion of reality, and is satire at its best.
Jared Yates Sexton
Stories | 188 Pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: PDF ARC
978–0–9909035–6–7 | First Edition | $16.00
Split Lip Press | Pennsylvania | BUY HERE
Listen up, World. Jared Yates Sexton has something important to say about the state you’re in and your future. A reader might not always like what he has to say about the world, but, since Sexton is a great writer, the reader will likely love how he says it. The collection of stories that the author self-describes as weird and the publisher calls experimental, I Am the Oil of the Engine of the World invokes a mixture of contradictory emotional responses. It is a funny yet scary, brutally honest yet hyperbolic distortion of reality. It’s satire at its best.
In a review of his previous collection, The Hook and the Haymaker, I described the writing as a literary Exile on Main Street, the gritty double album classic of the Rolling Stones. Now, I Am the Oil invokes more of the Doors and Jim Morrison’s world-view: “Motel money, murder madness. Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness” (“L. A. Woman,” the Doors).
In 25 shorts, averaging about six pages each, Sexton sets a dark and weird mood, established up front in the lead story, “You Are but a Pilgrim Venturing to a Strange and Honest Land.”
On the cab ride in the driver turned and said, Did you know Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you are their distant cousin?
This is how the people of this world behave. They’re odd and philosophical and make the protagonists ask questions. Is this a dream? What is exaggeration? What is reality? They may not always like the answers. When this narrator asks the passenger next to him on a plane if something is wrong, she answers that of course it is. There’s always something wrong. The ending of this story unfolds a welcome mat for the reader to Sexton’s weird world, which is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, George Saunders, and Amelia Gray.
The domestic scenes central to his other two collections continue here, but these new couples find themselves in even more desperate times. If those earlier stories were about that moment when things are about to get weird, the new stories center on the idea that even after they get weird, they can get weirder. One couple finds themselves caught up in the buzz of a serial killer that the media has somehow turned into a hero. Excitement rises and falls on the killer’s activity. What should be a threat to their world is a motivator. Hope is turned around. The protagonists are almost always on the losing end, and humor might be their only grace.
A presentation. My girlfriend and me sitting in our living room, on our couch, drinking glasses we haven’t owned in ages. Pay attention to the graph, she says. The peaks and valleys tell the entire story. Here is the height of our love. She points to a wonderful swell in the past. And here it is, she says, pointing to a rot-colored line that runs to the bottom of the poster board. This is today, she says. This is where my love has ceased, she says. I think I’m dreaming, I say. You’re not dreaming, she says.
Everything is possible in this world. Even Jennifer Aniston makes an appearance. Hallelujah is found in a bomb. A mother is discovered in a grocery store aisle and transformed into a movie star. Lines are blurred between everyone’s fortune and curse. A father knows not to break the gaze of his ten-year-old son because
weakness was not a trait either of us tolerated.
“There’s blood in the streets, it’s up to my ankles. Blood in the streets, it’s up to my knee. Blood in the streets in the town of Chicago. Blood on the rise, and it’s following me” (“Peace Frog,” the Doors).
The events are so crazy, so exaggerated, I laughed and wondered how he dared to go there. And then I’d watch the news of people doing similarly absurd things and listen to commentators describing the wide gap in American beliefs about what would make us “great” again, and it sounded hauntingly familiar. I’m not sure if this is comedy or horror, but it seems to me this book predicts the Trump phenomenon. It also says that as crazy as our new era may feel, tighten your seatbelts because it’s bound to get worse. Hope will continually be turned around.
There never was a jig, he cried into the receiver. The American Experiment is over. It’s failed worse than a middle-schooler’s tinkerings. Come and witness me sour my liver, he said. Come and watch me pickle.
And then, like all good things, it has to end. The last piece, called “Everything That Blossoms,” is a nice philosophical wrap-up on the endings of stories and also hints a way to navigate the world of I Am the Oil of the Engine of the World.
You always said I had a problem with happy endings. That whenever my narratives got near the end they started to spoil like curdled milk. You were the optimist, the one who looked at the uneven and crooked pictures on the wall and said their imperfections gave you something to do tomorrow, something to live for.
This unnamed couple shares the most peaceful, intimate, insightful and sane moments of the entire book. They briefly exchange differing opinions on endings that also speak volumes to beginnings and middles, as well. While their dog looks for the perfect napping spots, he becomes a symbol that allows the couple to synthesize their views into a mutually satisfying ending.
“Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free? Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand, in a desperate land” (“The End,” the Doors).
AL KRATZ is a Staff Book Reviewer for The Coil. He is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, a former reader for Wyvern Lit and Pithead Chapel, and is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He has had work featured in Red Savina Review, Wyvern Lit, Third Point Press, Daily Palette, Apeiron Review, Corvus Review, 1000words, Gravel, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere, and he is the winner of the 2013 British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction Competition and second place winner of the 2016 Bath Flash Fiction Award. Find him at alkratz.blogspot.com.
Originally published on The Spark on 5/23/16.